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September 1, 2009

Pac-10 Preview: Picking the Winners

The Ninth Annual 'Picking the Winners' 2009 Pac-10 Preview

By now, serious college football fans have likely read more than their share of national and regional preview magazines. All of you out there crazed enough about college football, and Pac-10 football in particular, to be reading this column are probably able to run off a Cliff's Notes version of each major team's strengths and weaknesses. In fact, a select few of you could probably rank each Pac-10 club's defensive line or tight end corps from best to worst.

Nine seasons ago, I decided: what better way to break away from the pack than to simply sit down with the conference's composite schedule and make preseason picks of each and every game played by a conference club this year. Not only does it provide some excellent ammo for readers, but also, it's simply enjoyable to pick 75 games with nothing more than last season, spring practice and summer camp to lean on.

In my eight years of writing this piece (three times for PigskinPost.com, once for CollegeFootballNews.com and, the past four seasons, for USCFootball.com), I've gotten harsher reviews than the coaching salaries at Berkeley and UCLA got from California state lawmakers. I've also put together a record I am pretty proud of:
• 2001: 50-18 (.735)
• 2002: 55-25 (.688)
• 2003: 57-23 (.713)
• 2004: 58-13 (.817)
• 2005: 52-19 (.732)
• 2006: 51-25 (.671)
• 2007: 58-18 (.763)
• 2008: 58-18 (.763)
• TOTAL: 439-159 (.734)

Once again, however, the Pac-10 schedule presents its share of quandaries, mostly thanks to the conference's parity behind seven-time defending champion USC. And, in 2009, you can easily add the Trojans to the list of conference teams with question marks, as the Trojans try to replace an historic group of linebackers and will start true freshman Matt Barkley at quarterback.

Beyond USC, however, there is truly very little separation between spots two and eight in the conference. While Cal and Oregon appear to be a head above the rest of that group, it's not inconceivable that each could lose a game or two to the teams directly behind them. Once you reach the heart of the conference schedule, it again seems to present at least two or three toss-up games every week.

For the fifth time, the Pac-10 "Picking the Winners" column is appearing exclusively on USCFootball.com. So, again, I figure I can temper my annual "by the time we're done here, many of you are certain to be irritated and, based on track record, offended" warning. However, I can assure fans of other schools reading this space that it is probably safe for you to prepare your "homer" E-mail templates now.

So - as always - I invite you to settle in and grab an adult beverage. Here it comes once again … odd scores, blowouts, nail-biters, upsets and all - the 2009 Pac-10 game-by-game preview.

Thurs., September 3
Oregon 38, Boise State 34: The season kicks off with a bang as, on Boise's blue turf, the Ducks get revenge for last season's Bronco victory in Eugene. The pair of top-25 teams put on a show, but thanks to Jeremiah Masoli's two TD passes and LeGarrette Blount's two TD runs, Oregon survives a late Boise surge.

Sat., September 5
Stanford 38, Washington State 7: Sure, it's a 31-point home conference loss to open the season, but let's put this in perspective: a year ago, Stanford beat the Cougs 58-0. Baby steps, Pullman, baby steps.

Arizona 38, Central Michigan 28: After record-breaking quarterback Dan LeFevour stuns the Wildcats with three first-half touchdown throws, Arizona scores 24 third-quarter points - including a pair of Nic Grigsby touchdown runs - to rally in Tucson.

Arizona State 45, Idaho State 0: The Sun Devils ease into 2009 against the championship subdivision (formerly known as I-AA) Bengals. Appropriately, with such SEC-style scheduling, ASU will face Georgia later in September (likely with a much different result).

Oregon State 51, Portland State 13: The Beavers call ASU's Idaho State and raise them a Portland State. Seriously, there is NO excuse for playing teams like this.

UCLA 31, San Diego State 6: The Kevin Prince era has an auspicious beginning, as the Bruins' new quarterback looks nothing like turnover machine Kevin Craft. However, the real story is UCLA's solid defense - how consistently well this group plays will be a huge factor in whether the Bruins have a bounce-back season.

USC 42, San Jose State 10: Matt Barkley's debut at USC's helm is aided by the Trojans rushing attack. While Barkley throws for two scores (and an interception), USC's 285 yards rushing pave over the Spartans.

California 42, Maryland 17: Another revenge game for the Pac-10, as Jahvid Best decimates the Terps. Amazing how differently the Bears play at home, at night rather than at the crack of dawn on the road.

LSU 27, Washington 10: An ambitious beginning to the Steve Sarkisian Era in Seattle. The Huskies hang with the Tigers for two-and-a-half quarters before the talent and speed difference takes over.

Sat., September 12
Arizona 41, Northern Arizona 10: For those keeping track, that's three FCS opponents for Pac-10 schools. Even though Pac-10 schools consistently play more BCS-conference opponents in non-conference match-ups than any other major conference, this is still three too many I-AA opponents.

California 56, Eastern Washington 7: Oops, make that four.

Oregon 45, Purdue 24: The Ducks have a much easier time with the Boilermakers in Eugene than they did a season ago in Big Ten country.

Oregon State 31, UNLV 17: How many Beavers can you fit into a suite in the Venetian? Vegas is about to find out. What about Oregon State's recent wretched road non-conference record? The Beavers should find the road to the end zone paved with gold poker chips against the Rebel defense.

Wake Forest 30, Stanford 21: A year ago, it was Cal that got the 9 a.m. Pacific wake-up call for a road game at an ACC foe. This year, their Bay Area brethren get to do the sleepwalking act against the Demon Deacons.

Tennessee 24, UCLA 7: Another rematch from a season ago. This time, Rocky Top gets the best of the Bruins, as Eric Berry notches two interceptions, and UCLA is held scoreless until the final quarter.

USC 24, Ohio State 16: People who want to equate Barkley starting this game to Terrelle Pryor's brief appearances against USC in 2008 are forgetting a few things. 1) As a situational replacement who played reasonably well, Pryor was the least of the Buckeyes' problems in the 35-3 loss. 2) USC's history under Pete Carroll in hostile early season non-conference environments. 3) The vast separation in speed and creativity of design on both sides of the football that was on display a year ago in the Coliseum. The Trojans will overcome a couple of Barkley mistakes, bottle up the Buckeyes running attack and do enough on offense to leave the Horseshoe with a victory.

Washington 42, Idaho 14: The Husky losing streak ends, thanks to that old reliable punching bag: the Idaho Vandals.

Washington State 28, Hawaii 22: In Seattle, the Cougar offense looks almost Pac-10 worthy. Of course, this isn't exactly the 2007 Hawaii team.

Sat., September 19
USC 42, Washington 17: Sarkisian's first conference outing turns out to be against his mentor. It goes pretty much according to each school's recent history.

Iowa 31, Arizona 21: Surprisingly, after last week's battle with the Lumberjacks, the Wildcats have trouble adjusting to a road game against the possible Big Ten dark horse Hawkeyes.

Arizona State 42, Louisiana-Monroe 14: The Sun Devils move to 2-0, but a trip to Athens is on deck.

California 30, Minnesota 27: For a second consecutive season, the Bears get the dreaded 9 a.m. Pacific time kickoff thanks to ESPN. However, this season, Cal only hits the snooze button once, allowing it to finish its second-half comeback to beat the Golden Gophers.

Oregon 35, Utah 24: The Ducks' difficult non-conference schedule continues, this time with the defending Sugar Bowl champion Utes visiting. After Oregon rolls out to an early 21-0 lead, it takes a Walter Thurmond III pick-six in the fourth quarter to seal Oregon's perfect pre-season.

Oregon State 34, Cincinnati 20: The Beavers find out that the Bearcats are much less frightening on the banks of the Willamette than on the banks of the Ohio.

Stanford 30, San Jose State 13: Remember those pre-Jim Harbaugh days when the Spartans gave the Cardinal all they could handle on an annual basis? Those days are over.

UCLA 24, Kansas State 10: If Bill Snyder hadn't "retired" from K-State a few years back, you can bet this visit to Pasadena wouldn't be on the Wildcats' schedule. No one does "rebuilding" mode like Snyder, and he knows the first thing to do is to get rid of as many BCS conference opponents as possible.

Washington State 31, SMU 24: One program actually took the "Death Penalty." One just looked like it should have. I'll take the home team that only appeared dead.

Sat., September 26
Oregon State 27, Arizona 20: Ah, the first full week of conference match-ups! The Beavers Jacquizz Rodgers rings up 134 yards rushing, and Oregon State's reconstituted defense shows it shouldn't be overlooked. A road win in Tucson is continues the Beavers' solid start.

Oregon 31, California 24: In the first "conference game of the year," the Ducks hold off the Bears with a late touchdown catch by tight end Ed Dickson.

Stanford 38, Washington 17: The Cardinal start 2-0 in the Pac-10. Will the bowl drought finally end?

USC 56, Washington State 3: It's unclear whether there is a bigger gap between the top team and the worst team in a BCS conference than the one that exists in the Pac-10. I'm up for listening to other nominees.

Georgia 35, Arizona State 16: No Matthew Stafford? No Knowshon Moreno? No problem for the Bulldogs against a Sun Devil team that may spend much of 2009 searching for an offensive identity.

Sat., October 3
Arizona State 20, Oregon State 17: The Beavers' first Pac-10 road trip goes awry, as Dexter Davis wreaks havoc, with three sacks and a forced fumble - one of Oregon State's five turnovers, which lead to all of ASU's points.

USC 27, California 17: "Pac-10 Game of the Year, V2.0" turns into another Trojan defensive domination of a Jeff Tedford-coached team. When are people going to get over Cal's 2003 stunner against the Trojans and realize that the Bears have averaged barely more than 11 points per game against USC since that famed upset?

Oregon 49, Washington State 10: The Ducks finally get a bit of a breather after an intense four-game stretch. And thanks to Oregon and USC, the Cougars' return to reality after a pair of non-conference wins is fully underway.

Stanford 24, UCLA 20: Payback is sweet for the Cardinal as Andrew Luck's late QB sneak propels the Cardinal to the top of the Pac-10.

Notre Dame 34, Washington 21: Tyrone Willingham didn't stick around Seattle long enough to make it back as an opposing coach at Notre Dame. Sarkisian had better luck against the Irish as a USC assistant.

Sat., October 10
Arizona 27, Washington 24: The Huskies valiant effort for a conference victory is spoiled by a physical 11-yard TD catch and run by Wildcats' tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Arizona State 31, Washington State 14: What looked like a possible breakthrough opportunity for the Cougars in Pullman turns sour as the Sun Devils score three unanswered second-half touchdowns.

Oregon 27, UCLA 23: For a second consecutive year, the Bruins give the Ducks all they can handle, but two late fumbles doom UCLA's chances at the Rose Bowl. A big question is quickly becoming: Will Oregon return to Pasadena on New Year's Day … or perhaps six days later?

Oregon State 27, Stanford 20: James Rodgers rushes and receives for more than 100 yards each as the Beavers slow down the Cardinal in Corvallis.

Sat., October 17
Arizona 31, Stanford 24: The Cardinal suffer another tough road loss, this time in Tucson, when Delashaun Dean gets deep for a 77-yard TD grab in the closing minutes.

Arizona State 35, Washington 28: The Huskies almost pull off a stunner in Tempe, before Omar Bolden returns an errant Jake Locker pass for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The Sun Devils hold on to move to 3-0 in the conference - but the heart of the schedule still remains.

UCLA 29, California 23: California taxpayers thank the Golden Bears for their money-saving efforts by taking buses south for their annual battle with their little brothers. UCLA fans thank Jeff Tedford's team for its eighth consecutive defeat in Los Angeles - that's right, a Tedford-coached Cal team has never won at USC or UCLA. I'm sure that bus ride back to Berkeley will seem like a breeze.

USC 31, Notre Dame 17: Notre Dame fans seem to think the choice of Barkley somehow equates to how bad the Irish were when Jimmy Clausen was a true freshman starter. One big difference: Barkley plays with USC's players for USC's coaching staff. Clausen played with Notre Dame's players and for Notre Dame's coaching staff. Unfortunately for him, two years hence, he's still hamstrung by that fact. The Trojans roll the Irish for an eighth consecutive season.

Sat., October 24
Arizona 30, UCLA 20: The Bruins recent road troubles in the conference continue, as Prince's three interceptions lead to 17 Wildcat points.

Stanford 28, Arizona State 16: The Cardinal bounce back from a pair of tough losses to hold the Sun Devils to 232 yards of total offense in Palo Alto.

California 52, Washington State 7: Nothing cures a three-game losing streak like a visit from the Cougars.

Oregon 38, Washington 21: Back from a bye, the Ducks just keep on rolling, as Masoli contributes 395 total yards in Oregon's latest stomping of the Huskies.

USC 24, Oregon State 6: The Beavers are always a much different team in the Coliseum. And though OSU's defense plays well, the Trojan defense stifles the Rodgers brothers and sacks Sean Canfield five times.

Sat., October 31
California 38, Arizona State 28: As rough as the Bears have had it under Tedford in L.A., they've been just about as good against the Sun Devils. Best breaks loose for 241 yards rushing and Cal wins going away in Tempe.

Oregon 27, USC 20: A Halloween haunt again for the Trojans? After three costly turnovers and a questionable pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter, USC remains winless in the state of Oregon since Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush left campus.

Oregon State 24, UCLA 17: The Beavers make it a clean sweep over L.A. this weekend in Corvallis.

Notre Dame 34, Washington State 10: (at San Antonio) Remember the Alamo! Or at least, Notre Dame hopes, Texas recruits might consider the Irish an option for a change. ND sweeps the state of Washington, which passes for an accomplishment on the South Bend campus.

Sat., November 7
Arizona 42, Washington State 22: The Wildcats win their third in a row, and become bowl eligible for a second consecutive season. Bowl eligibility is the farthest thing from Paul Wulff's mind.

USC 35, Arizona State 13: USC gets back on track, as Barkley throws for four scores in what could be a coming-out party for 2010 and beyond.

California 28, Oregon State 27: For some reason, the road team has had great success in this rivalry in recent seasons. However, after the Beavers finally held serve in Corvallis in 2008, the Bears hold off a late charge to finally beat Oregon State in Strawberry Canyon.

Stanford 31, Oregon 28: If this looks like a "trap" game for the Ducks, well, it definitely is. Following an historic victory, Oregon travels to rising Stanford, which is coming off a bye and looking to clinch its first bowl berth since 2001 - a berth that slipped away by a single game just a year ago. Upset is written all over this one - and the Trojans are again back in the race for the roses.

UCLA 30, Washington 17: Though the Bruins come into the game at 3-5, the next three weekends set up to put UCLA in line to clinch a bowl bid before facing USC. Step one is accomplished by forcing five UW turnovers and rushing for nearly 300 yards as a team.

Sat., November 14
California 31, Arizona 14: The Bears win their fourth in a row, jumping to a 24-0 lead at the half and cruising home in Berkeley.

Oregon 42, Arizona State 21: The Ducks maintain control of their Rose Bowl destiny after a slow start in Eugene. Oregon scores 35 of the game's final 42 points.

Oregon State 33, Washington 17: The Beavers' loss-win pattern continues as the Huskies drop to 0-7 in the conference. Once again, the Apple Cup game is looking like the battle to finish ninth.

USC 38, Stanford 17: A week after their stunning upset over Oregon, the Cardinal return to the scene of their most shocking win, the 2007 upset of USC. However, it's bowl-eligible Stanford that suffers the letdown this week, as USC storms to a 28-7 halftime edge and coasts home at the Coliseum.

UCLA 35, Washington State 14: Step two of the Bruins' three-step bowl eligibility program is completed in Pullman.

Sat., November 21
Stanford 24, California 21: On what used to be "Rivalry Weekend," the Big Game is the lone Pac-10 rivalry contested. A late field goal lifts the Cardinal to its second straight home win in the series against Cal, and guarantees Stanford no worse than a fourth-place finish.

UCLA 27, Arizona State 13: The third and final step isn't quite as easy as the first two, but an ASU offense decimated by injuries helps the Bruins gain bowl eligibility in Pasadena.

Arizona 34, Oregon 27: What is it about the Ducks in Tucson? Two years ago, Dennis Dixon went down for good with a torn ACL and No. 2 Oregon slid from a possible BCS title berth all the way out of major bowl bid consideration. No injury this time - just a series of boneheaded mistakes that allow Arizona to overcome a 502-337 total yard disparity to put USC back in control of the conference race.

Oregon State 38, Washington State 20: Oregon State moves to 8-3. Washington State considers a move to the Big Sky Conference.

Sat., November 28
Arizona State 27, Arizona 23: The Sun Devils shock the Wildcats with two late scores to gain bowl consideration, while at the same time knocking Arizona a couple rungs down the Pac-10 bowl ladder.

USC 27, UCLA 10: Ten times in 11 years now, it's been the same story - USC, decisively, over UCLA. The Bruins' losing streak in the Coliseum reaches six (UCLA's last win on USC's home field - 1997).

Washington 22, Washington State 20: Turnabout is fair play, as the Huskies knock off the Cougars on a last-play field goal in Seattle to earn a ninth-place finish.

Stanford 28, Notre Dame 24: The Irish lose an opportunity at a BCS bid when Stanford's Toby Gerhart rushes for 192 yards and two scores to cap the Cardinal's best season in a decade.

Thurs., December 3
Oregon 45, Oregon State 31: One week after Thanksgiving, Masoli again carves the Beaver D up like a turkey. Oregon's win means USC must win its final game to keep the Ducks out of Pasadena on New Year's Day.

Sat., December 5
USC 38, Arizona 13: And the Trojans do just that, as Barkley throws two TDs, Allen Bradford rushes for two more and the USC defense holds the Wildcats to just 32 yards rushing. Once again, a single loss looks likely to keep the Trojans from the BCS championship game - but a sixth Rose Bowl in eight seasons is a nearly unthinkable achievement.

California 35, Washington 21: Why this game is on the schedule on this date is beyond me. The Huskies are fat and happy after beating the Cougs, and the Bears are playing for the difference between an Emerald Bowl or Las Vegas Bowl appearance. That just screams "championship weekend," doesn't it?

Predicted Pac-10 Standings 2009
USC 11-1, 8-1
Oregon 10-2, 7-2
Stanford 8-4, 6-3
California 8-4, 5-4
Oregon State 8-4, 5-4
Arizona 7-5, 5-4
UCLA 6-6, 4-5
Arizona State 6-6, 4-5
Washington 2-10, 1-8
Washington State 2-10, 0-9

Most pundits and prognosticators see the 2009 as USC's most vulnerable season in some time. The recent selection of true freshman Barkley as quarterback has done little to quell that talk. However, when a team has won a conference seven consecutive seasons (either outright or shared), and returns nine offensive starters, it's pretty clear that - until proven otherwise - that team remains the team to beat.

For some reason, California, rather than Oregon, seems to be the vogue pick to knock the Trojans from their pedestal. However, while there is no discounting the talents of Best as a running back, the Bears still feature Kevin Riley at quarterback and an as-yet-undistinguished group of receivers. Count me among the skeptics regarding the consistency of Cal's offense as 2009 begins. Back to back games at Oregon and home against USC will likely tell the Bears' fortunes this season. On the other hand, the Oregon offense, led by Masoli and a bevy of skill position talent, will likely light up the scoreboard regularly, making life easier on a defense that will have to gain experience as it goes. A schedule that sees Cal, USC and Oregon State all visit Eugene will benefit the Ducks mightily.

At Stanford, this is the year that Jim Harbaugh gets the Cardinal not only over the hump and back into a bowl game, but also makes a push into the upper reaches of the conference. Harbaugh has created a hard-nosed, physical style to Stanford football - an identity that's been missing. The power running of Gerhart should allow freshman quarterback Luck to grow into the job, and a schedule that offers up Oregon, Cal and Notre Dame on the Farm definitely helps.

Last season's darling, Oregon State, looks to finally have the non-conference schedule to avoid a tough start. However, a schedule that includes road trips to USC, Cal and Oregon - plus a green defensive group - will likely leave the Beavers among the conference's second group, which also includes Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. Each of these three teams has a bevy of question marks on offense, playmakers on defense and the ability to step up and bite any of the conference favorites any given week. Each is good enough to make a bowl, but questionable enough to fall off to 5-7 or worse.

At the back of the bus remain Washington and Washington State. While I project both to finish with 2-10 marks in 2009, it is the Huskies who are more likely to take the biggest step forward, with the return of Locker and the infusion of energy brought by Sarkisian and his new staff. However, an ambitious non-conference schedule and the talent drain left by Willingham will keep the record down. The Cougars, meanwhile, are swirling far below mediocrity and need a vast infusion of talent before they can be expected to challenge the rest of the conference.

Tom Haire has been writing for USCFootball.com for nine years. He is the editor of a monthly trade magazine in the advertising industry. He grew up watching USC dominate the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl and ended up a Trojan journalism school alum ('94). He's traveled from Honolulu to Palo Alto to South Bend to New York to Miami to watch college football, and has also covered the Pac-10 for both PigskinPost.com and CollegeFootballNews.com. He can be reached at thomas.haire@alumni.usc.edu.


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